Pride and Prejudice

[4 August 2010]

By Brian Holler

Released with some fanfare in time for worldwide gay pride fests this summer, 20th Century Fox put on DVD is own arbitrary collection of queer classics: a rainbow-hued chronology dubbed the Cinema Pride Collection, a formidable “first-ever” ten-packer which attempts to trace the arc of the GLBT community’s portrayal through the “lens” of Hollywood. It’s a mixed bag to be sure—some of the DVDs are bare bones, some contain a smattering of extras, and the quality is wide-ranging. At times there seem to be no substantial criteria for making the cut, save a glut of homo, bi or trans characters and an assiduous avoidance of politics, most markedly any whiff of AIDS or Milk-style soapboxing whatsoever.

Clinging to the dictum “The personal is political”, and shunning such pesky realities as promiscuity (Cruising, anyone?), illness and civil rights, the creators of Cinema Pride have opted to focus simply on storytelling and character development, so the individual work must stand or fall on these merits, or lack thereof.  Some of these films are considered classics of their respective genres, and there’s nary a genre untouched, save for horror (a field widely pillaged by academic queer theorists).

Nonetheless, The Children’s Hour provides horror aplenty, exhuming very real monsters both external and internalized. The film’s at-times melodramatic antics (based on Lillian Hellman’s play) feature two improbable Sapphics in Hollywood royalty Shirley McLaine and Audrey Hepburn (in a love triangle with stolid James Garner), running a school for girls in some unnamed Midwestern burg. If today McLaine seems remorseful for its shame-saturated tack, it remains of a piece with its time. Though unavoidably stagey, the film’s hothouse atmosphere pervades an effectively distressing quality, as the little girl snitch who brings down the would-be lovers rivals Omen’s Damien,  and was at the time perhaps the most maleficent prepubescent screen villain since The Bad Seed’s Rhoda Penmark. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.

There’s a feeling of airlessness and dread to the film, which casts our heroines as out-and-out social pariahs based on a mere rumor perpetrated by two monstrous children. It’s never clear where the director’s (William Wyler) sympathies lie and whether we are supposed to feel horror in the case that the rumors prove to be true.  The noncommittal dialogue and McClaine’s character’s tragic fate gives us a clue as to Wyler’s and Hellman’s deep ambivalence about queerness in general, and perhaps their own. 

From The Children's Hour (1961)

From The Children’s Hour (1961)

The Children’s Hour is a timely reminder of how truly sinister homosexuals were once considered (long before it was hip for Cindy Crawford to administer a barber shave to kd Lang on the cover of Vanity Fair)— the love that dare not speak its name, indeed.  he film’s tragic ending remains convincing, and no amount of PC cant can undercut its power.

When La Cage aux Folles arrived on cable in the early ‘80s it was a real thorn in my side – I just couldn’t countenance its caricatured performances and mileu. As a fledgling queer teen, I was horrified– I knew I liked men, but if this was what it meant to be a card carrying butt pirate, I wanted no part of it. Its worldview seemed shockingly prescriptive, based on a mysteriously popular perception, which made me want to bolt my closet door shut forever. 

By this time, La Cage aux Folles had become something of a franchise, spawning a number of sequels, and had also become enshrined, Christmas- style, as a neutered camp spectacle for straights, fodder for dinner theatres and pantomimes and paving the way for the likes of Dame Edna. The world was still safe for ‘faggots’, provided they remained your hairdressers, your interior designers, your Uncle Arthurs, and so on. Now, 25 years on, are things really so different? (Carson Kressley anyone?)

I suppose some would say the cultural omnipresence of these stereotypes somewhat refutes my argument that these characters seem awfully dated, that it proves that they, like the doe-eyed son’s shaggy emo stylings and the peppy Ennio Morricone score, have stood the test of time. Are they believable, though?  Did I laugh?

Well, yes, in spite of myself, I laughed. Make no mistake, these trannies are travesties; the “women” of La Cage aux Folles are all portrayed as shrieking harpies, and domestic violence is used as a punchline (is that supposed to be part of the fun? ) As a farce, it sort of works. However, to paraphrase John Waters, I felt like a black watching a minstrel show.

To be fair, all the (male and female) characters are equally strident, the ultra-conservative father of the bride’s ersatz machismo revealed, Ted Haggard-style,  as just another ruse to keep his social standing. Even the fiancé is a bit of an ass, insisting his father wipe away any and all traces of affectation for the sake of his marriage sham. 

The title suggests that all birds of a feather are eventually brought together, as is the case with the two disparate but equally unsympathetic families at film’s end. Perhaps the story rang true with a wider audience not only because of the slapstick situations therein, but because its “We Are Family” sentiment suggests that we can’t choose our family, or who we love, and it is by this process that we learn to accept our differences. Or something.

Who knows why the dominant culture, i.e., straights, single out some films or TV shows over others for success as representative of “our” ilk? (Perhaps it’s the same logic of contagious fabulosity which impels them to fix up all their gay friends on dates, thinking they must have everything in common because of a single trait!).  The film is certainly no cohesive validation of any gay “community” per se, and there are no flagrant acts of sexuality depicted, not that I would’ve wished to have seen any of these people in flagrante delicto.

From La cage aux folles (1978)

From La cage aux folles (1978)

The high gloss remake of The Birdcage attempts to update the story for the liberated yet somehow stodgy ‘90s (the 20-year fashion cycle dictates that anything from a decade ago must necessarily come off as more dated than a 30-year old relic). The new effort is entertaining enough, but even with a fresh coat of glittery paint and spirit gum, it seems a little late. Sure, it was a canny move on the part of director Mike Nichols to change the setting from pastel-hued St. Tropez to pastel-hued Miami Beach,  but is Nathan Lane camping it up in the Michel Serrault role really such a progression? Nichols, too, directs most of the scenes to the letter of the original script, including the infamous toast-piercing masculinity test, with a only a few tweaks here and there.

Speaking of dated, the dreary clunker Priscilla, Queen of the Desert clunks pointlessly on, nearly 16 years on. The persistent happy house piano plunking and relentless beat of CC Peniston’s (great name)  “Finally” and other “empowerment” anthems of its ilk plague the film, bringing on all sorts of funny flashbacks and bouts of gurning , pulling the lips back into a frozen Joker rictus . Like the dancer in The Red Shoes, however, I couldn’t not tap my toes, in spite of the grimly unfunny scene unspooling before me.

It’s so much whistling in the graveyard at a time when retroviral drugs hadn’t yet realized their full potential, and silence still equalled death. It’s the relentlessly cheery soundtrack to AIDS, but again, is the topic ever even broached? Not on your life. Instead, the major death in the film, on which the entire plot, and titular vehicle turn, occurs when a character dies inhaling peroxide fumes whilst dying his hair. Charmed!

The tragic tranny persona is here downgraded (or upgraded, depending on your point of view) to a sort of bored housewife status – kudos to Terence Stamp for his naturalistic portrayal of Bernadette (qualifier: such a performance is often praised as “brave” in direct proportion to the hitherto bankable masculinity of its star), wearily chugging bottles of hormones as gay-ghetto-fabulous Priscilla proceeds full bore through the Outback, a traveling troupe of queens at the helm. These three encounter a group of noble savages in an Aboriginal tribe —whose society embraces the gender-dysphoric —and as counterpoint the requisite rednecks such a picture needs to sustain dynamic tension. That’s about it, plot-wise.

No matter what happens on the political landscape, Priscilla, poppers in finely- manicured hairy hand, seems to be saying,  the party and its concomitant beat, goes on, and on, and on like a meth-fueled disco bunny. Frankly, however, a little of the film’s tawdriness goes a long way. We need look no further than protagonist Bernadette for proof of this; she’s so worn-out and frayed from “the life” that she opts out, staying behind in a remote resort town to eke out an existence with craggy old Bill Hunter from Muriel’s Wedding

The film tries to throw in a subplot about one of the queens having a clandestine child, but it’s really just another red herring in an anorexically thin plot, which is in turn a mere wooden clothes horse on which to hang hideous flip-flop dresses and the like. Such a ham-fisted attempt at family values didacticism goes over about as well as these girls in an Outback tavern.

From The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

From The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

Object Lesson

Similarly, Object of My Affection cravenly uses children to elevate and cutesify the screenplay, imparting a familial message, and even tries to have it both ways by giving the little buggers acid tongues. The difference is the strength of the material. Object’s script, based on a book by Stephen McCauley, is actually a solid tale of practical, well-adjusted folk trying to weld together some semblance of a family from some very impractical constituent parts. 

I was worried that Object of My Affection would be a typical fag hag film which, like execrable “my gay boyfriend” press of late, is never flattering and usually insulting to both straight women and gay men. These types of films usually objectify the male as an accessory and treat both as cartoon characters.  A couple of scenes dangerously skirt this territory, such as a tricky seduction in which Aniston’s character’s feelings for Rudd’s character come to a head, but the two are interrupted when the script pulls back for a clichéd timely phone call from an ex. 

This “pride collection” is clearly no occasion for reliving the terror of the “new gay cancer” and gauntlet-throwing, storm-the Catholic-church, Doc-Marten-stamping shenanigans, nor for holding Reagan accountable for murder, Larry-Kramer-style.

Aniston delineates her role with the complexity required to render the character three-dimensional, and the film allows her in kind to maintain her dignity. Rudd isn’t let off the hook here either; he’s just as complicit in succumbing, whilst playing house with Aniston, to some all-too- fleeting bisexual impulses – his heart’s not really in it, but he’s slipped in the deep end, with one foot still in the shallow end (Timothy Daly) of the male dating pool. Additionally, Object avoids the pitfalls of the reductive fag hag storyline, inasmuch as the whole thing plays more like a roundelay in which each member of the ensemble couples up with the proper team at the end.

Excepting, of course, the jaded, bitter old-school queen. Nigel Hawthorne gives the film the ring of bitter truth, as a theatre “mentor” (read: sugar daddy) and sort of Greek chorus in the film, commenting on the action and occasionally dropping nuggets of wisdom to the younger, besotted and, in his mind, misguided characters.

At times the dialogue plays, for better or worse, like a wittier Neil Simon, but the scene in Aniston’s Brooklyn digs in which her pregnancy is inadvertently divulged is staged ingeniously—conflicting agendas and motivations erupting in a bout of overlapping, incisive dialogue,  which must have made Robert Altman green with envy.  Although it’s very nearly marred by a mawkish ending , Object of My Affection is a worthy choice for this mini-queer canon; it displays a healthy sense of ambivalence about virtually every “lifestyle” going, conflated with the rhythm of actual New York lives.

From My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

From My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Stephen Frears’ brilliant My Beautiful Laundrette is also a worthy addition, yet far from sentimental.  A young Daniel Day Lewis stars as working class thug Johnny, and Gordon Warnecke as Omar, his opportunistic partner in business. It’s a note-perfect satire of race, class and upward mobility at any cost set in Thatcherite England. Homosexuality is not necessarily front-and-center in the plot, but merely incidental to it. The love story reveals itself so organically –  we aren’t even aware the characters are lovers until almost midpoint—that it’s miles more effective than any gay pigeonholing (or cornholing) would have been. As a dissection of manners and mores at the intersection of filthy lucre and seedy, sooty ‘80s London, My Beautiful Laundrette may be reflective of its time, but its wit and humanity remain intact, despite a shaky DVD transfer.

CAPTION

Heather Jurgensen & Jennifer Westfeldt in Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)

Though instantly dated by its central gimmick (the protagonist answers an ad in the print version of the Village Voice), the sweet, stinging, sparkling comedy Kissing Jessica Stein gives Woody Allen a run for his money in the neurotic Jewish New Yorker stakes, rivaling Allen’s best and breeziest, while refraining from easy answers or too-pat endings.

Unhappily single and her own worst enemy, Jessica is also something of an ascetic, a hypercritical editor pushing 30 who, after a series of romantic disasters and false starts, finds herself pining for “the one”.  She fortuitously stumbles on the Voice singles listing, which impresses Jessica with its quotation of Rilke, and has been placed by Helen , who is looking for her first foray into same-sex relationships. Jessica, naïve to a fault, has never been with a woman, yet decides to set aside her (very pronounced and comically manifested) reservations, taking the plunge with a reluctant-yet-horny Helen.

They say that comedy is the harder than drama to engineer; indeed, the cast must have been sweating this one out—it’s one of the funniest comedies of any year, offering up some unvarnished truths and no real resolution, yet somehow remaining optimistic and light as a feather. It’s also a canny depiction of the shifting power dynamics in relationships gay and straight.  Any film with former Hollywood Square Jim J. Bullock as an in-denial would-be suitor of the titular heroine couldn’t be anything but a massive delight. However, whither the cast and crew of Kissing Jessica Stein? The ending leaves an opening for a possible sequel. Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, where are you now?

Kissing Jessica Stein mercifully leaves identity politics behind—well, except for one piss-taking character who doesn’t believe Jessica is a “real lesbian”. It’s a laugh seeing the great range of reactions to Jessica’s self-discovery, especially one pal who sees it as a bohemian stamp of coolness (“It’s so radical!”)  Like My Beautiful Laundrette, Kissing Jessica Stein isn’t a gay film per se, but it too sees hard-working, imperfect human beings fumbling through life, trying not to become prisoners of their patterns.

From Bent (1997)

From Bent (1997)

The final triumvirate of works in this collection are all love stories at heart: the improbable but funny Imagine Me and You (a woman seduces a bride on her wedding day) applies the queer thing to a twee Brit rom-com setting; Boys Don’t Cry, with an electrifying Hilary Swank in her star-making performance as Brandon Teena; and Bent, a lugubrious Holocaust drama which casts a crooning Mick Jagger as drag diva and a smoldering, young Clive Owen as a gay soldier, proving once again that no category remains untouched by the pink demographic.

The collection is entertaining enough, but a viewer of a certain persuasion could while away hours assembling the perfect collection in her head. There’s no representation, for example, from the much-hyped transgressive New Queer Cinema of the early ‘90s. One can’t help but wonder if in the end such controversial mainstream films (also of varying degrees of quality) as Silence of the Lambs, Basic Instinct and Philadelphia didn’t have a more ironically lasting effect on the public’s sensitivity to and perceptions of the oh-so-nebulous gay community.

Presenting these artifacts as sociological tome, with each film representing the discrete attitudes of its respective era in the popular psyche, the assemblers of this handsome box set have committed a major sin of omission. Charting progress in the age of Reagan, Thatcher,  ACT-UP and Clause 28 without even mentioning HIV seems calculated. This “pride collection” is clearly no occasion for reliving the terror of the “new gay cancer” and gauntlet-throwing, storm-the Catholic-church, Doc-Marten-stamping shenanigans, nor for holding Reagan accountable for murder, Larry-Kramer-style. However, it’s possible that the great scourge merits its own collection. I imagine it would be just as uneven as this one.

Brian Holler is a thirtysomething freelance writer, teacher and blogger living in Berlin, Germany. He is a graduate of the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. He is co-editor of local magazine Zusammen/Getrennt, with an equal interest in pop trash and lowbrow culture. His ultimate goal is to import currywurst to the States.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/129069-pride-and-prejudice/